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Sag Harbor

by Colson Whitehead

(For what it's worth, one of the books I didn't post about over the summer was also by Whitehead. John Henry Days is fantastic. A really great companion piece to Steel Drivin' Man, it also has some great things to say about the nature of work without being off-puttingly polemic.)

Leaving aside the ill-advisedness of reading a book set over the course of a not-so-fateful summer in the absolute depths of winter, this was pure pleasure to read. One of the nice things about Whitehead's writing is his restraint. This is nominally a coming-of-age story, the events of an adolescent summer in Sag Harbor, an upper middle-class black Hamptons enclave, set in the early 80s. But there's no high drama or "And That Was When Everything Changed" ponderousness. On the last page of the book, Whitehead, in the voice of his 15-year-old narrator Ben (please, don't call him Benji anymore) all but washes his hands of the notion in the process of reaching for it, pointing out that "It didn't seem like that much time had passed, but I had to be a bit smarter. Just a little. Look at the way I was last Labor Day. An idiot! Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot. And fifteen looks at eight and says, That guy knew so little. Why can't fiteen and three-quarters look back and fifteen and a half and say That guy didn't know anything. Because it was true. ... I could do it. It was going to be a great year. I was sure of it. Isn't it funny? The way the mind works?" (p. 273)

Though this is not really the sort of book that can be 'spoiled,' it would not be giving too much away to say that last year was not so great for Benji, and there is little evidence to suggest that next year would be much different. Benji's a Manhattan kid, in a 'Cosby' family (podiatrist dad, Nestle in-house counsel mom) attending prep school and weekend bar mitzvahs ("Every bar or bat mitzvah should have at least one black kid with a yarmulke hovering on his Afro - it's a nice visual joke, let's just get that out of the way..." p. 7), playing Dungeons & Dragons,  rocking a Bauhaus t-shirt all summer and contemplating whether he could get away with combat boots under the school's dress code. He sealed his social doom early in freshman year by yakking in mixed company about Fangoria magazine. For nine months of the year his peers are well-off white kids with whom he has little in common, and in the summers, his peers are well-off black kids, whith whom he has only a bit more in common. A couple generations removed from Strivers Row, they're the grandchildren of the segregation-era black professionals who built their own summer homes and social networks. They are "good kids," college-bound and well-mannered, working fast food summer jobs in part to build character, and raised to be a bit contemptuous of poor blacks who they saw on the nightly news more often than the corner (though they occasionally turn up at family reunions too.)

The book is mostly slice-of-life, highly evocative of a place I don't really know and a time I only sort-of do, and a place in society I can only guess at. Like Whitehead's other books, it's not about race per se, but is nonetheless a highly nuanced and uncommon take on the subject. Uncommon? Maybe that's not the word. What I'm trying to get at is that despite the fact that I knew plenty of middle-class (and higher) black kids growing up, they're still as rare as unicorns on TV and in (mass marketed) films. Benji (and, by extension, Colson Whitehead) seems more like my peers than, to go for the most obvious example, Precious, but his particular version of 'the black experience' doesn't seem to get much play. Which is too bad - it's endearing and relatable and thoughtful and funny.

The New York Times review does a better job getting at the heart of this book than I do, which is as it should be, because, you know, Janet Maslin wrote it.

"...Mrs. Finkelstein always seemed glad to have me around. Sending their daughter to a fancy private school was a betrayal of core values, paying tuition when you were supposed to support local public schools being in traitorous equivalence with eating grapes when you were supposed to boycott grapes. Those days, every nonunionized grape was a tear squeezed out of the eye of a migrant worker's child." p. 8

"I was one of those dullards who thought that 'Just be yourself' was the wisdom of the ages, the most calming piece of advice I had ever heard, and acted accordingly. It enabled these words, for example, to escape my mouth: 'I can't wait for Master of Horror George A. Romero to make another film. Fangoria magazine - still the best horror and sci-fi magazine around if you ask me - says he has trouble raising funding, but Ithink Hollywood is just scared of what he has to say.'" p. 24

"The trend that summer was toward grammatical acrobatics, the unlikely collage. One smashed a colorful and evocative noun or proper noun into a pejorative, gluing them together with an -in' verb. I'm not sure of the syntactical parentag eof the -in' verbs, so I'll just call them the -in' verbs. Verbal noun, gerundlike creature, cog in the adjectival machine, who knew - as was the case with some of the people in my living room, there was a little uncertainty in the bloodlines. 'Lookin'' was a common -in' verb. Like so:
[This is a hand-written chart in the book. It's cute]
Angela Davis Motherfucker
George Jefferson Nigger
(p. 41)

I found this to be a novel and interesting take on the lack of diversity in television:
"I knew white kids in school whose parents didn't let them watch TV, these urchins with scabbed knees with always had their hands out for crumbs when you mentioned Potsie or Chachi. Still meet white people who crow 'We don't let our kids watch television.' Can't say I've ever heard a black person say that. Maybe I should travel in different circles. Perhaps one day, as the forces of racial progress transform every corner of our nation - can you hear it, the inspirational 'overcome' music? - we will cross the color line in TV prohibitions. What black person didn't like laughing at the shenanigans white people got up to on TV? White people were black camp, our native kitsch; white sitcoms magnified the campiness to grotesque proportions. Hug. Talk it out. I'm here for you. What kind of shit was that?" p. 186

"The Cosby Show cornered us, forcing us to reconsider our position. That was some version of ourselves on the screen there. After so long. My mother told us that when she was growing up, whenever a black face appeared on television, you ran through the house to tell everyone, and they dropped what they were doing and gathered around the RCA. If you had time, you hit the phone to spread the word. You could plan your day around it - Jet kept a list of upcoming appearances of black people on television, no matter how small. Nat King Cole, Diahann Carroll in Julia. Make some room on the couch to verify that you actually existed. My generation had Good Times (six seasons) and Baby I'm Back (one-fourth of a season), shows that honestly depicted how the black community lived in this country. Like, what to do when the heat goes off in the projects in the middle of winter. How to sort thinks out when your deadbeat husband returns after seven yars with a jaunty 'Baby, I'm back!' Hence the title. The practical matters of the black day-to-day, don'cha know. Me and Reggie and Elena turned in, making room on the couch to verify that we didn't exist, while my father restrained himself from kicking in the set: That's not how we live." p. 187





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